[This post was originally posted on Cassius Life]
What happens to the children?
On Friday May 5, Takara Williams, a 24-year-old Black mother, was driving her grandfather’s car to drop her two kids off at childcare on her way to work when she was pulled over by a Winston-Salem, N.C. police officer for speeding.
Body camera footage of the encounter shows her politely handing over her driver’s license, and searching the glove compartment for the registration and insurance. When it turned out her grandfather’s insurance had expired and his tags had been revoked, Takara called him to come to the scene. When the officer demanded the keys to the car, she refused to hand them over because the car wasn’t hers, and asked the officer to wait until her grandfather arrived. When he insisted on holding the keys, she pointed out that she had complied with his request to remove them from the ignition, thereby eliminating any risk of escape or to the officer’s safety. As the officer escalated the situation, Takara can be seen on video begging her grandfather on the phone to come quickly to the scene because she was scared of what will happen next. With good reason, it turns out.
Within minutes, the officer dragged Takara out of the car screaming in terror, threw her against the door and then face down on the asphalt before handcuffing her as her two children watched from the back seat, while a bystander recorded the incident on her cell phone.
TAKARA’S EXPERIENCE WEAVES TOGETHER A NUMBER OF TRENDS HIDDEN WITHIN BROADER DISCUSSIONS OF POLICE VIOLENCE AND MASS INCARCERATION.
“My children are in the back! There is no reason for this!,” Takara cried in between sobs. “For what? Because I’m a Black girl?…I’m taking my kids to day care which I can’t do now – you gonna watch ‘em for the time being?”
As her bra is exposed during the arrest, she exclaims, “this is horrible and degrading! You doing this for what? A speeding ticket?” Ultimately, she is arrested, taken into custody, and eventually released on $1000 bond.
Takara’s experience weaves together a number of trends hidden within broader discussions of police violence and mass incarceration. Women like Takara make up a growing proportion of arrests nationwide: more than 2.2 million women were arrested in 2014, a quarter of all arrests, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Many of those arrests feature violence of the kind Takara experienced – including police violence against pregnant women and mothers, often in front of their children.
Many of those arrests lead to time in jail. According to the Vera Institute, since 1970, the number of women incarcerated in jails across the country has increased 14 fold. As a result, “the number of women in jail nationwide is growing at a faster rate than any other incarcerated population.” Over 80 percent of women in jail are charged with minor property, drug, and “public order” offenses. Almost half – 44%– are Black. And, close to 80% are mothers, often single mothers, and five percent are pregnant when they are locked up.
Many women languish in jail because they are unable to pay bail—like the $1000 price tag put on Takara’s freedom after being pulled over for speeding, before she has been convicted of any crime. That’s why this Mother’s Day, the Movement for Black Lives is calling for a National Mamas Bailout Day—a grassroots effort by groups across the country, from Memphis to Minneapolis, Durham to Los Angeles, to raise and post bail to free mothers and caregivers of all kinds—including, queer, trans, elder, and immigrant mothers and caregivers who are locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay the price of freedom, and reunite them with their families.
As she lay handcuffed on the ground, Takara raised a critical question in light of the growing number of mothers who are arrested: What happens to their children? While Takara’s children cannot be seen in the videos of the incident, we can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to watch, powerless, as their mother was forcibly removed from the car, and to hear her screams as she was thrown to the ground. According to Nell Bernstein, author of All Alone in the World, a “national study found that almost 70 percent of children who were present at a parent’s arrest watched their parent being handcuffed, and nearly 30 percent were confronted with drawn weapons.”
AS SHE LAY HANDCUFFED ON THE GROUND, TAKARA RAISED A CRITICAL QUESTION IN LIGHT OF THE GROWING NUMBER OF MOTHERS WHO ARE ARRESTED: WHAT HAPPENS TO THEIR CHILDREN?
In some cases children and their belongings are searched for drugs, strip-searched, forced to spread their buttocks, or subjected to diaper searches. Bernstein concludes “[t]he result is that an event that is by its nature traumatic— the forcible removal by armed strangers of the person to whom children naturally look for protection— happens in ways that are virtually guaranteed to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, that trauma.” Indeed, many children who witnessed their mother’s arrest suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In Takara’s case, fortunately, the officer was prepared to wait until her grandfather came on the scene to take her children into his care. In many jurisdictions, Bernstein writes, “the majority of police departments have no written protocol delineating officers’ responsibility to the children of arrested parents, and those protocols that do exist vary widely in their wording and their implementation.”
The situation hasn’t improved over time. A 2010 Michigan study similarly found that close to 60% of departments surveyed had no policy in place relating to responsibility for minor children when a caretaker is arrested, and only one in five departments require an officer to ask arrestees every time they make an arrest if there are any children who might be left unattended as a result. Only a third would do so if there were a child present. More than half wouldn’t inquire even if the arrestee raised a concern.
This remains true to this day. Research I conducted in 2015 as a Soros Justice Fellow found that all but one of 35 of the nation’s 50 largest police departments had no policy governing treatment of children of arrested parents. As Bernstein puts it “[t]he way these children are handled after a parent is arrested varies from ignoring them, leaving them with a neighbor, leaving them alone with the promise that someone will be back from the store shortly.” In many cases, children simply come home to find their parent gone, with no indication of why or where they have gone, and no clues for locating them.
Where police, like the officer who arrested Takara, do pay attention to what happens to the children of the people they arrest, predictably, the children of Black mothers are much more likely to be placed in the system than with a relative. A 2014 Minnesota study found that “in some counties, large numbers of African American children were placed in out of home care” when their parents were arrested on charges unrelated to child abuse and neglect, prompting legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to work with parents who are arrested to identify kinship care for children to avoid the need for out of home placement.
In Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, I explore the many pathways that bring Black mothers and their children into contact with police, including traffic stops like Takara’s, responses to domestic violence, criminalization of pregnant women and mothers in the context of the war on drugs, discriminatory enforcement of child welfare laws, and the outrageous arrests and prosecutions of women like Tanya McDowell and Kelly Williams-Bolar for “theft” of free public education for their children. The cases and research show that Black mothers are directly targeted by racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration, and often experience gender-specific forms of police abuse and criminalization – such as being pregnant, giving birth or mothering while Black.
This Mother’s Day, let us not only remember and honor the countless Black mothers who have lost children to police violence and mass incarceration, but also the Black mothers who are direct targets of both.